British Museum blog

London, a world city in 20 objects: Barack Obama’s Kenyan victory kanga

Barack Obama’s Kenyan victory kangaChristopher Spring, British Museum

Tremendous celebrations greeted the news in Kenya, his father’s homeland, of Barack Obama’s election, on November 4 2008, as 44th President of the United States – and of his re-election for a second term in November 2012. Thousands of kangas bearing his image were proudly worn throughout the land. The inscription in Kiswahili reads: ‘Congratulations Barack Obama. God has granted us Love and Peace’. This kanga is on display as part of a special temporary exhibition at the British Museum looking at the textile traditions of southern and eastern Africa.

Barack Obama’s Kenyan victory kanga

Barack Obama’s Kenyan victory kanga

Kangas are rectangular printed cloths, each with their own inscription written in the same place in every design; they are sold and worn in matching pairs and are principally a woman’s garment in eastern Africa, though often worn singly by men at home and by Maasai men in public.

A combination of inscription, overall design, and the ways in which a kanga may be worn make it a remarkable medium of communication. Kangas may be used to demonstrate a woman’s stance on global issues, her political allegiance and even her alignment with a collective vision for the future.

Kangas reflect changing times, fashions and tastes. They provide a detailed chronology of the social, political, religious, emotional and sexual concerns of those who wear them. Their patterns and inscriptions also vary according to the age of the wearer and the context in which the cloth is worn. Kangas provide ways of suggesting thoughts and feelings which cannot be said out loud, and of relieving suspicions and anxieties. They move between the realms of the secular and the sacred, playing a central role in all the major rite-of-passage ceremonies in a woman’s life, yet also are used for the most mundane of functions.

The rectangular form of today’s kanga, with a continuous border, a central image or pattern, and an inscription in Kiswahili, has changed considerably from early prototypes. The first kangas were created in the late nineteenth century by sewing together six printed handkerchiefs, lenço, which the Portuguese had traded to eastern Africa for centuries. Soon hand-stamped versions on a single piece of cloth replaced the sewn lenço, and these in turn were superseded by factory-printed textiles, while all the time the form and patterning of kanga were evolving. The most successful designs and inscriptions are those which will appeal most to women, so manufacturers depend heavily on the advice of their female African customers. There was little doubt that the Obama kanga would be a best-seller.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 14 February 2013.

Barack Obama’s Kenyan victory kanga is on display in the exhibition Social fabric: African textiles today until 21 April 2013.

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London, a world city in 20 objects: Ilkurlka by Simon Hogan

Ilkurlka by Simon HoganPolly Bence, British Museum

This painting is one of almost 6,000 objects from Australia and the Torres Strait Islands in the British Museum. This is a growing collection; the Museum continues to acquire contemporary Indigenous Australian objects, including contemporary art works.

Ilkurlka by Simon Hogan

Ilkurlka by Simon Hogan

Ilkurlka was painted by Simon Hogan, a senior custodian of Linka, the place where he was born and raised in Western Australia, known as Spinifex country. The Spinifex people or Pila Nguru live in the Great Victoria Desert of Western Australia, adjoining the border with South Australia.

Hogan’s paintings tell stories from his land, depicting specific places within Spinifex country. As is often characteristic of this genre, the painting collapses time: it shows several successive events on top of each other. The large U-shape in the painting is a rockhole with water in it known as Ilkurlka and the trees are mulga trees (wanarii). When describing this painting Hogan explained: ‘those trees belong to that place’.

The painting tells the story of a man who was camping at this rockhole. He woke up and travelled to another place where there was a very powerful watersnake that he was trying to capture.

In describing the painting the artist explained that in it the man is trying to eat the snake and at the same time he has eaten it – he is both a man and a snake. The oval shape depicts the man lying down, feeling sick having eaten the snake – but the man now has a great deal of power.

During the atomic tests at Maralinga in western South Australia during the mid-1950s, the Spinifex people were driven from their homelands. Many found themselves dispersed and others were forcibly relocated to mission stations hundreds of miles away. In the 1980s people returned to their land to find that specific settlement areas had been designated for them and some areas had been selected for mining.

The 1990s saw an arduous and lengthy period of negotiations over land rights and native title claims, and it was during this period that the Spinifex Arts Project was developed to help the group document and illustrate their Native Title claims. This decade of discussion culminated in 2000 with ground-breaking legislation and a new understanding: Spinifex people were finally recognised as the traditional owners of 55,000 square kilometres of land in Western Australia. Spinifex artists produce work to demonstrate and share their complex history and traditions.

The British Museum is working towards a major Indigenous Australian exhibition which will open in 2015, which will include Spinifex paintings.


This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 7 February 2013.

Ilkurlka by Simon Hogan is on display in Room 37

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London, a world city in 20 objects: the Crucifixion of Christ

The Crucifixion of ChristChristopher Spring, British Museum

The modern state of Ethiopia was created from an ancient kingdom founded over two millennia ago. Originally extending across the Red Sea into what is now Yemen, the Aksumite Empire of Ethiopia became Christian in the fourth century. It is associated with the biblical mythologies of Solomon and of Sheba, and in the medieval west with the Christian Patriarch Prester John. Ethiopia is mentioned several times in the Bible, and its church is one of the oldest in the world. Although Ethiopia, then as now, is a country of many faiths and cultures, including Christians, Muslims and Jews.

Ethiopian Christian churches thrive among diaspora communities, with many congregations based in London. This remarkable painting tells multiple stories, with layered meanings, about Christianity and empire.

The Crucifixion of Christ

The Crucifixion of Christ

It was created in the mid-nineteenth century for the Church of the Saviour of the World at Adwa in northern Ethiopia. Its central image of the Crucifixion of Christ was painted to inspire devotion among Ethiopian Christians. There is a convention in Ethiopian religious painting for the unbelievers or evil-doers to be painted in profile and for the righteous to be painted full face – therefore the two thieves with whom Christ was crucified are depicted only in profile. At the foot of the cross Christ’s blood flows into the mouth of the skull of Adam signifying humanity’s redemption through the blood of the redeemer.

The smaller scenes around the edge of the painting celebrate Bishop Selama, the Abune (Patriarch) of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church from 1841-1867. One scene shows the arrival of the Abune in Gandabta in 1841; Bishop Selama is shown riding on a donkey being greeted by jubilant crowds.

Church paintings at this time were an important means of communication and observers would have been able to identify the recent events depicted. For example, the third scene to the left shows Bishop Selama, wearing a red, hooded cape, anointing Emperor Tewodros II of Ethiopia at his coronation in 1855. Tewodros had an ambitious plan to unite and modernise the country, and is still regarded as a hero by many Ethiopians.

These illustrations of Bishop Selama’s life provide an insight into the complex relationship between Church and state in Ethiopia at the time, depicting a struggle for power. The coronation of Emperor Tewodros by Abune Selama reflects on their initial alliance and the Emperor’s need for the church’s support in unifying Ethiopia politically. However, it was an alliance which eventually collapsed largely because of Emperor Tewodros’ almost unstoppable desire for modernisation and the control of ecclesiastical power.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard in January 2013.

The Crucifixion of Christ is on display in Room 25: Africa

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London, a world city in 20 objects: I Love Minatures by Rashid Rana

I Love Miniatures by Rashid RanaSona Datta, independent curator

The British Museum continues to collect objects both old and new from across the world to ensure that the collection reflects diverse world cultures. The Museum acquires contemporary objects, particularly those that make reference to or recast past traditions as represented in the Museum’s historic holdings.

I Love Miniatures (2002) is a groundbreaking work in which contemporary Pakistani artist Rashid Rana uses digital photomontage to compose an image of the 17th century Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. The image evokes an amalgamation of well-known portraits of the ruler, best remembered for that great monument to love, the Taj Mahal.

I Love Miniatures by Rashid Rana

I Love Miniatures by Rashid Rana

The term ‘miniature’ refers not to scale but to technique. Rana constructs his portrait by marshalling thousands of photographs of billboards across modern Lahore creating a pixilation that mirrors the technique of meticulously applying individual dabs of paint in traditional miniature painting. Since, 2002, this method of ‘painting with photographs’ has become Rana’s trademark.

‘Miniature’ also refers to the artist’s training at the National College of Arts in Lahore, which was established under colonial rule in 1875. It was there, in the 1980s, that the Pakistani state instigated a revival of the historic miniature in a bid to endorse the country’s cultural identity by aligning it with its glorious Mughal past. However, the new generation of ‘experimental miniaturists’ like Rana are working to a different agenda.

The border (which in the traditional miniature often comprised a richly painted margin) is signified here by a faux-gilt frame. Rana’s picture is thus framed by the European tradition. The hanging of pictures within frames for mounting on walls was never part of the South Asian tradition. These were designed to be hand-held and enjoyed in intimate surroundings.

As a work, I Love Miniatures is both fragmented and holistic by virtue of its technique and conception. Departing in medium, Rana has concocted the ultimate modern miniature, tantalising and seductive, which forces the viewer to look beyond the surface of the image as it draws us towards the complex layering of life in modern Pakistan.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 24 January 2013.

I Love Minatures by Rashid Rana is on display in Room 37

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London, a world city in 20 objects: shield (gaschan)

ShieldChristopher Spring, British Museum

The Somali community has grown in London in recent years and its impact can be witnessed in one of the newest acquisitions to the British Museum’s collection, a button badge with the slogan ‘I love Mo Farah’, the Somali born runner who was such an inspiration throughout the 2012 Olympic Games. But the Museum’s collection contains many fascinating objects of Somali origin, such as this Hippopotamus hide shield on display in the Sainsbury African Galleries.

Shield (Gaschan)

Shield (gaschan)

Somali shields were very much smaller than those from neighbouring Ethiopia, being not much larger than a dinner plate, though their perfect circular shape was created in a similar way. The first stage was to cut out a piece of untreated hippopotamus hide, then to place it over a shaped wooden mould sunk firmly in the ground. Any hair would be scraped off at this stage, and the hide would be allowed to dry. Then several coats of oil would be applied over a period of days, causing the hide to swell, while at the same time being beaten with a mallet to achieve a tough and virtually impenetrable surface.

The shield maker would then use a number of special hammers to apply embossed markings to the supple surface before allowing the hide to dry out completely. Despite their small size, Somali shields are extremely strong – and may be looked upon almost as offensive rather than defensive weapons. They had a very large hand grip which would allow the owner to push the shield up his arm when not in combat.

Undoubtedly the significance of shields extended far beyond their purely functional capabilities. Possessing a fine, perfectly round and bleached white shield was an indication of a man’s standing in society. Some shields also have intricate designs, painted in henna, beneath the grip on the reverse side. These were known as ‘marriage shields’ and formed part of the dowry given by the bride’s father to his son-in-law. Similar shields were used in the Arabian Peninsula, and there is evidence to suggest they were made in Somalia for export, particularly to Oman.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 17 January 2013.

The shield is on display in Room 25: Africa

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London, a world city in 20 objects: bell And bell shrine of St Cuileáin

Bell and bell shrine of St CuileáinSue Brunning, British Museum

Storytelling has long been woven into the fabric of Irish culture. The ancient tradition of the seanchaí, or storyteller, is alive and well in modern Ireland, and amongst Irish diaspora communities across the world, and fittingly one of the British Museum’s most iconic Irish objects has myriad stories to tell.

Bell and bell shrine of St Cuileáin

St Cuileáin’s bell shrine

The history of the bell-shrine of St. Cuileáin, also known as the Glankeen bell-shrine or ‘Bearnan Cuileáin’, began in the AD 600s or 700s with the manufacture of a bell. Legend links it with St. Cuileáin himself, patron saint of Glankeen in County Tipperary and reputedly the founder of its monastery. The bell was made from iron and coated in bronze. Originally, a ‘clapper’ suspended inside would have struck the walls to ‘ring’ the bell when it was shaken. Such hand-bells were probably used to call monks to prayer in early Christian Ireland.

During the late 1000s the bell was enshrined within an elaborate cast bronze case, transforming it into a relic of St. Cuileáin. Not all parts of the case survive: a bronze sheet on one side of the bell is engraved with a cross marking the place where a fine crucifix was once attached. A ‘crest’ enriched with designs in enamel, niello, and silver and copper wire was fitted to the top. Human and animal faces peer out from each side. Interlacing ribbon-like creatures of Scandinavian style testify to a time when Irish art and culture was influenced by interactions with Vikings.

At some point in its history the bell-shrine ended up in a tree in Kilcuilawn, Glankeen. After its recovery, it took on an active and miraculous role in the community. Records from the seventeenth century onwards describe its use in oath-swearing and as a type of lie-detector test, capable of sending liars into convulsions or strangling them if hung about their necks. But to others it was more benign, said to bestow fortune and even healing powers. Such records show that the bell-shrine was still generating stories a millennium after it was made.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 10 January 2013.

St Cuileáin’s bell shrine is on display in Highlights from the world of Sutton Hoo, AD 300–1100

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London, a world city in 20 objects: Iznik pottery basin

Iznik pottery basinVenetia Porter, British Museum

The ceramics made in Ottoman Turkey at Iznik, south-east of Istanbul, are among the highest achievements not only of Turkish potters but of ceramicists anywhere. Decorated with highly elaborate and colourful floral designs they were made for the Ottoman court. A taste for them developed in Elizabethan England, and they later inspired the English nineteenth century potter William de Morgan.

Iznik pottery basin

Iznik pottery basin

At Iznik, established as a major centre in the late fifteenth century, the potters were able to achieve great technical innovations, producing an enormous range of pottery with richly-painted designs that combined motifs such as arabesques, found in the arts of earlier periods in Turkey and elsewhere, with those inspired by imports of Chinese porcelain – the glorious blue and white vessels associated with the Yuan dynasty specially made for Middle eastern patrons. The Iznik designs evolved, new colours were introduced, delicate blues and greens, and finally red.

The design of this magnificent bowl is made up of an undulating pattern of flowers that may once have been lotuses or peonies but are now hybrids unknown to nature. They are intersected with a serrated edge leaf known as the saz. Inside, is a symmetrical arrangement of lozenges framed by pairs of delicate hyacinths, within which is another Chinese inspired design, known as a cloud band. The exuberant cocktail of designs found on Iznik pottery becomes the hallmark of Ottoman art of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there were artists and designers at court supplying the patterns and these bold and beautiful designs appear on the kaftans of the sultans, on metalwork and on delicate book bindings.

Much of the impetus for this can be attributed to Sultan Suleyman, the Magnificent, (ruled 1520-1566) known as Kanuni or lawgiver on account of the beneficial changes he brought in relation to education and taxation. During his reign the Ottoman Empire reached its greatest extent covering the Middle East and North Africa and into Europe as far as Hungary until checked at the siege of Vienna in 1529. As patron of the arts, he initiated bold architectural projects that changed the character of Istanbul and other major cities of the Ottoman Empire and that were realised by the great architect Sinan (d. 1588). It was also during his reign, from about 1550, that the potteries began to produce the glorious tiles that were to adorn the facades and interiors of Ottoman buildings.

An inventory of the Ottoman treasury mentions ‘foot basins’; could this mean that the sultan and his family washed their feet in bowls such as these? It is not difficult to imagine when strolling through the exquisite gardens of Topkapi palace, entering that gilded world, and glimpsing the opulent objects with which the sultans clearly surrounded themselves.


This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 3 January 2013.

The Iznik pottery basin is on display in Room 34: The Islamic world

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London, a world city in 20 objects: Korean moon jar

Korean moon jarSascha Priewe, British Museum

Conventionally known as ‘moon jars’, dalhangri in Korean, because of their suggestive shape and milky-white glaze, these vessels are considered a high point of Korean ceramic production during the Choson period (1392-1910).

Korean moon jar

Korean moon jar

This jar in the British Museum is one of only 20 such vessels remaining in the world. It stands 47 cm high and was produced in around 1650-1750. It was made by joining the separately thrown top and bottom sections together, thereby creating a visible joint at the centre. Although there is no firm evidence about the use of moon jars, it has been proposed that food or drink may have been stored in them or that they held flowers.

Moon jars have recently become popular in Korea and abroad. These vessels have inspired a broad movement in contemporary Korean art. Some artists, such as the famous ceramist Park Young-sook (b. 1947), whose modern moon jar is also represented in the British Museum’s collection, have recaptured their aesthetic and technical accomplishment; while others feature moon jars as a motif in paintings, photography and art installations. In this way, moon jars have become to be an icon of Korean art.

During the Choson period, Confucianism became the dominant ideology of the upper class. A moral philosophy, Confucianism governed the conduct of social relationships, and it still remains important today. It also had an impact on Choson-period aesthetics by encouraging a preference for restraint in decoration and likely contributing to the popularisation of plain white ceramics. The moon jar with its imbalance and minor imperfections in the white glaze epitomises this approach towards objects.

The British Museum’s Choson moon jar has a special connection to the United Kingdom. It was acquired by the British potter Bernard Leach (1887-1979) during a trip to Korea in 1935. Leach, who is often regarded as the ‘father of British studio pottery’, took much inspiration from certain East Asian ceramic traditions and incorporated aesthetic sensibilities, such as “nobility, austerity, strength, and warmth” that he identified, into his works. Decidedly anti-industrial, British studio potters strove to re-discover traditional artisan pottery – the ‘peasant pottery’- that Bernard Leach found resonated with many of the East Asian pieces he venerated. It is tempting to think that the British Museum’s moon jar from Korea helped to define the aesthetics of British studio potters.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 20 December 2012.

The Korean moon jar is on display in Room 67: Korea

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London, a world city in 20 objects: inscription from the Firuz Minar at Gaur

Inscription from the Firuz Minar at GaurMichael Willis, British Museum

Inscription from the Firuz Minar at Gaur

Inscription from the Firuz Minar at Gaur

From the 1300s, when London was still a small town on the River Thames, the city of Gaur in Bengal was a vibrant metropolis. It enjoyed trade links with Thailand, Ceylon, Africa and the Middle East and on several occasions served as the capital of Bengal. By the late 1500s, however, Gaur began to lose its population due to changes in the course of the River Ganga – the main commercial artery of the day. The mosques and tombs in Gaur fell slowly into ruins and the open land between the monuments was given over to rice cultivation, palm groves and mango trees. So it is today.

This inscription is from one of Gaur’s most famous monuments, the Firuz Minar. This high tower has drawn the attention of many travellers. It was illustrated first in watercolours and prints in the 1700s and photographed from the 1860s.

The inscription is fragmentary, with only the right-hand portion preserved. The other parts disappeared more than two centuries ago and have never been found. The inscription is written in Arabic, beautifully carved in a style of calligraphy unique to Bengal. It gives the titles of an important Bengal Sultan: Sayf al-Din Firuz Shah. He was of Ethiopian descent and ruled as king from 1486 to 1490.

Gaur is located in northern Bengal, straddling the border between Bangladesh and West Bengal. The old mosques and tombs are all made of brick, with many still carrying traces of coloured tiles. Doorframes and inscriptions were carved in stone. As Gaur declined, inscriptions began to fall from their original positions. This led to them being collected and stored for preservation. William Franklin, an officer in the East India Company and a prolific writer on history and archaeology, mentions that he found the Firuz Minar inscription stored in an indigo factory at Gaur. Indigo was an important cash crop in the early colonial period because it was the main source of blue dye before discoveries in the 1840s allowed the colour to be produced chemically. Following the same route as indigo, tea and cotton, the Gaur inscription was moved down river to Calcutta and carried aboard ship to London.

Franklin donated the Gaur inscription to the British Museum in 1826 shortly after his retirement from active service. The Gaur inscription is among the first antiquities from this region to enter the collection.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 13 December 2012.

The Inscription from the Firuz Minar at Gaur is on display in Room 34: The Islamic world

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London, a world city in 20 objects: Tree by Ibrahim Mohammed El Salahi, 2001

Tree by Ibrahim Mohammed El SalahiChristopher Spring, British Museum

The Khartoum School, under the leadership of Ibrahim El Salahi, began to be recognised in the 1960s as an emergent modernist movement producing a distinctive means of expression known as Sudanawiyya – a synthesis of Western styles of art with other traditions, reflecting the remarkable ethnic, religious and cultural diversity of Sudan. Salahi explains part of the rationale behind the movement:

“Originality, human originality, does not mean creating something out of nothing as such a claim is well beyond the capability of mankind. Originality in my opinion means to be able to create the new out of what is already there in existence. One simply makes a new addition, a sort of a new idea, a fresh leaf atop that same old tree of creation”.

Tree by Ibrahim Mohammed El Salahi

Tree by Ibrahim Mohammed El Salahi

Among the traditions which inspire and inform Salahi’s work is that of the patched tunic, jibba, which was the distinctive uniform of the followers of Muhammad Ahmad, the Mahdi or ‘rightly guided one’ who in 1884 led a jihad or Holy War to establish the Mahdist State in Sudan. The jibba was inspired by the ragged muraqqa’a which for centuries had been the dress of the Sufi religious orders, signifying their contempt for worldly goods.

The artist Ibrahim El Salahi, himself a member of a Sufi brotherhood, sees the jibba as a metaphor for the remarkably diverse nature of Sudanese society, the patches symbolising different cultures and beliefs in various parts of the country. In his Tree series El Salahi makes reference to the form of the jibba as well as to the human form, suggesting a Tree of Life in Sudan. Created in 2001 using coloured inks on paper, Tree was produced in the artist’s UK studio. Although the Mahdist State ceased to exist following the Battle of Omdurman in 1898, Mahdism, through the mouthpiece of the Umma party, remains a vital political force in Sudan today.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 6 December 2012.

Tree by Ibrahim Mohammed El Salahi is on display in Room 25: Africa

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